Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Hand Behind the Taliban

Published: April 1, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan

The Taliban is on the resurgence, again ruling a swath of southern Afghanistan, and President Hamid Karzai is sure of the reason: Pakistan.

In an interview in his office, Mr. Karzai was scathing in his accusations of official Pakistani duplicity. For starters, he accused the Pakistani intelligence agencies of sheltering Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

“We have solid, clear information indicating that,” he said. “And I’m sorry I cannot be silent about this. As much as our friends in Pakistan may not like my saying that.”

Mr. Karzai suggested that the Pakistani government wants the Afghan government to fail, so that it can use the Taliban to turn Afghanistan into a colony of Pakistan. Speaking in English, he said: “The point that we are trying to tell the world [is] that the Taliban was a name, that there was another power behind — a very criminally intended colonial thinking behind the Taliban movement.”

One of the central mistakes of the last few years, Mr. Karzai suggested, was that the West had tried to battle the Taliban in Afghan villages instead of focusing on preventing Pakistan from financing and sheltering the Taliban. He put it this way: “Rather than concentrating on the sources of terror, on the financiers of terror, on the trainers of terror and on the sanctuaries of terror, [we concentrated] rather heavily on going about in Afghan villages, where there was no terrorism, where there was the result of terrorism, yes, but not the roots of it, not the springboard of it.”

Last September, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan reached a deal with tribal leaders on the Pakistani side of the border and pulled troops from the area. Since then, Mr. Karzai said, terrorism had surged.

“We have almost daily reports of suicide bombers coming from there,” he said, adding: “If we had better cooperation from Pakistan, a great many of these cross-border crossings would stop.”

Mr. Karzai also suggested that extreme Taliban policies — like whipping “immodest” women — were part of a Pakistani scheme to destroy Afghan morale and render Afghanistan a helpless puppet of Pakistan.

These charges were so serious that at the end of the interview I double-checked with him. “I just want to make sure I understand what you’re saying,” I told him. “You’re basically saying that the Taliban was using these policies because it was part of a Pakistani colonial policy to break the will of Afghanistan. And that still is, in effect, what is going on with Pakistan’s policy.”

“Absolutely,” the president said. “Absolutely.” (I’ve posted a transcript and audio file of the interview on my blog,

My own take, after reporting on both sides of the border, is that President Musharraf today is indeed turning a blind eye to the Taliban and aims to control it rather than wipe it out. But Mr. Karzai exaggerates the degree to which Pakistan is pulling the strings of Taliban puppets — and overstates Mr. Musharraf’s ability to destroy the Taliban.

Moreover, there is plenty of blame to assign to the American and Afghan sides as well. We haven’t done nearly enough to build up the Afghan Army and police, which don’t antagonize conservative Afghans the way U.S. troops often do. We fumbled the reconstruction and aid projects needed to win hearts and minds. My vote is for a big push to battle maternal mortality, because 18,000 Afghan women die annually in childbirth — dwarfing the 4,000 Afghans who died last year in Taliban-related violence.

In addition, the Afghan government desperately needs to curb the mind-boggling corruption and narcotics trafficking by its own officials. In short, Pakistan is only one reason that southern Afghanistan is a catastrophe — but a catastrophe it is.

“Nowadays in Helmand Province, the Taliban is winning,” said Haji Mir Wali, a member of Parliament from the southern province of Helmand. “Ninety percent of the area is under the control of the Taliban, and they are imposing their strict rule again.”

Outside of the provincial capital, he said, shops in Helmand don’t dare sell music, men who trim their beards are threatened with death, and schools have closed for boys as well as girls. “It’s worse now than it was in the Taliban’s time.” he said.

Unless we hear the fire bell in the night from the Afghan south, we could end up losing not only the war in Iraq but also the war in Afghanistan we should have won five years ago.

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog,


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